I’m happy to have earned a special mention over in the thick competition at Flash Friday! this past week. Our picture prompt was a lovely, sunlit image of the Colosseum, and we had the additional instruction to include a janitor as a character.
As usual, I went for a historical interpretation of the image. I’m aware that this might make my stories less accessible—it’s hard to do historical fiction in less than 200 words. Flash fiction does not lend itself to descriptions of setting or exposition or the social concerns of an era. So I rely on my readers’ knowledge of time and place to fill in the gaps, which is always a risk. It’s pretty safe to write in the present day, as readers will be able to pick up familiarities in characters, places, and vocabulary. But who can say whether a reader will recognize historical references?
Sometimes I highlight my setting in my title—for instance, “Memphis, 1964,” though I always feel this is a bit of a cop out on my part. Other times, I try to use marker words—for instance, “bodkin,” which I hoped would alert readers to the era of a witch-hunting story, though it was impossible for me to tell if this worked or not. But it’s always a hit or miss proposition to write historical flash. Even so, I love it.
This week, I’m fairly certain my historical flash worked better because I referenced a time that nearly everyone knows about on account of the film Gladiator.
This made me think about the interface between readers and writers, especially in flash fiction, which depends a great deal on what the reader brings to the table. A lot of flash asks readers to make inferences and fill in gaps. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t. I experiment with how much information is needed to convey historical circumstances. My own impression as a reader is that a direct style works better, or perhaps has more “mass appeal.” At the same time, I often feel my best stories are the elusive ones. I’m going to continue with my attempts at historical flash, even if they don’t always work as well as I’d like.
Here’s the special mention Gladiator-Janitor story:
“One hundred tigers from Anatolia,” whispered Flav, peering through the hypogeum slats as the crowd’s shrieks intensified. “Barbary lions.”
Marcel squeezed his eyes closed, imagining the blood. Great pools of it, congealing in the sun, soaking into the sand. Smearing his legs, soiling his hands. Already the coppery odor left him dizzy, permeating the tunnel where the slave-janitors waited.
The tunnel shook with screams from the Colosseum crowd. Their gate cranked open; one of the gladiators had gone down.
Flav and Marcel, beefy youths, were always sent out first; they could heave a body quickly, and speed was important in animal contests. There were no guarantees that the taunted creatures had been subdued.
Flav grasped the dead gladiator’s wrists. Marcel took the ankles.
Nearby a beast howled in pain. Flav’s eyes widened at some horror of fangs and claws. Janitors carried no weapons. Theirs were cheap, invisible lives. They cleaned the messes that everyone else could ignore.
Flav stumbled and dropped the body, marooning Marcel beneath its burden. Bloodsmell poisoned the air.
The arrow-ridden beast, in its dying rage, hit Marcel like a Fury, all slicing claws and spraying blood.
Their deaths were fast, though no one screamed or even noticed them fall.